Thursday, April 15, 2004

I've seen a number of this season's anime TV premieres, and I thought I'd make some ill-informed and pointlessly opinionated comments:

Madlax is another show from Bee Train, the studio which made Noir, Avenger, and the various .hack incarnations. You can tell immediately by the poor sound mix and the distinctive female technochorus BGM. I'm told that it's *supposed* to be another female assassin duo series, but there's only one of them in the first episode. It's set in some third world war-torn jungle hellhole - the usual pseudo-Hispanic dream-world conceived and produced by typically insular, ignorant Japanese creative staff. That was mildly annoying, but I found that my mild irritation was overwhelmed by the first episode’s climax. Our heroine intentionally changes out of her slightly impractical casual clothes into a black cocktail dress slit thigh-high, grabs a pair of pistols and a grenade, and goes into the jungle to ambush a mechanized column. Standing on a tree-branch, firing at a distance with her eyes closed, as the enemy blasts fruitlessly away with assault rifles, heavy machine guns, and a tank cannon. It’s almost exactly like the Rambo parody from UHF - except done completely without any hint of humor or irony. It makes Najika - a panty-fest knockoff of Bee Train’s own Noir - seem clever and thoughtful in comparison. Truly, truly awful.

Bakaretsu Tenshi, or Exploding Angel, a girls-with-guns anime from chronic underachievers Gonzo, which by all rights should have been the dog of this pair, is almost half-decent. Dave Asher described it as “Daphne in the Brilliant Blue with more clothes”, and that isn’t far off the mark. Our protagonist is a standard-issue girly-man, a cooking student looking for part-time work, who gets hired by a pack of underdressed, aggressive, overarmed girl-thugs who are looking for an Alfred to feed and pick up after their slovenly asses. It’s not fully explained in the first episode, but they’re apparently some kind of improbable mercenary outfit which specializes in violent, destructive face-offs with the criminal element and rampaging mecha. It’s about as unoriginal as it sounds, but watching competent mediocrity in close succession with something as lame as Madlax tends to really bring out my regard for efficient hackery. Since it’s Gonzo, I fully expect the show to tank in short order, but until the train wrecks, it’s probably worth hanging on for the scenery.

Both Bakretsu Tenshi and Tenjou Tenge have irritating Japanese rap songs for opening themes. I’m afraid this qualifies as some sort of trend. Not one my lily-white cracker ass is too thrilled with, but you can’t win every cultural battle, I suppose. Tenjou Tenge is based on a fighting manga with a reputation for skating just this side of pornography, but they’ve toned things down considerably. The sex is mostly gone, and there’s only a little cheesecake. It isn’t actively offensive, as of the second episode, and it isn’t as bone-stupid as, say, Ikki Tousen, but I can’t say it’s really grabbing me. If you’re wondering why I mention Ikki Tousen, that’s because there are complaints that that show lifted stylistic elements whole from Tenjou Tenge, and they’re essentially similar stories – high-school student fighting associations with lots of cheesecake, over-the-top martial arts, and a dim-witted kick-ass female protagonist. Tenjou Tenge has a much stronger male protagonist, but overall I can’t say I give much of a damn.

Aishiteruze Baby, or “Icantpronouncit Baby” as we’ve taken to calling it, due to my less-than-minimal Japanese skills, is another show trembling on the edge of my regard. It’s based on a popular, long-running shoujo manga about a teenage Romeo saddled with the care of a five-year-old girl by his near-criminally neglectful family. So, we’ve got a sexually aggressive bishounen stuck with an intensely cute little cousin prone to making announcements about how she’s going to “marry” him. If that doesn’t freak you out at least a little, you must be Japanese. Doesn’t help my composure when she crawls into his bed at the end of the first episode. More than a little creepy sums the story up so far. Pile on top of that a first episode with fairly low animation standards and a slow first half, and I was ready to give the whole enterprise a pass. But the little girl is cute as a button, and the interaction between our two protagonists is much more affecting than I was expecting. Despite all my culturally-programmed nerves, I don’t think it’s going that way – they’ve provided a quiet, sour-tempered, age-appropriate love-interest in the wings. I suppose there’s still hope for Aishiteruze Baby.

Koi Kaze is another one of those romance shows that freaks me out. The protagonist is a youngish salaryman at some sort of dating agency who’s in the process of failing out of a relationship because he just doesn’t give a damn. He lives with his father, who’s been separated from his mother for more than a decade. He has a much, much younger sister who has been living with his mother, who is going to be moving back in with her father and brother any day now. Mr. Rebound meets cute with a high-school freshman, and they go off on an impromptu date at a nearby amusement park while she’s waiting to meet with someone, and he’s waiting to meet with his family. They make an emotional, romantic, but chaste connection, and go off to meet their respective whomevers. Which turns out to be dear old dad, who is delighted to see that the siblings have met. Whoops. I want to hate this story, I really do. This isn’t Aishiteruze Baby, they’re seriously doing a romantic sibling-incest story, and I don’t think they’ll punk out like Marmalade Boy did in the end. On the plus side, it’s well-animated and strongly-plotted. On the minus-side – come on, man! Sister incest! I’ll still watch it, but you know I’ll be hating myself in the morning...

Midori no Hibi, on the other hand, is absolutely guilt-free fun. It’s a beautifully-animated Studio Pierrot comedy based on a popular shounen manga. Our hero Seiji is a delinquent high school punk, an intimidating loner of epic stature. He attracts wanna-be tough guys looking to make their reputations, and is a magnet for trouble. Girls are terrified of him, and with every new romantic rejection, he goes a little more nuts. Finally, he cries in despair that the only lover he’s ever going to have is his own right hand. Fate is a cruel, playful bitch, so the next morning, he wakes to find a tiny, adoring green-haired girl protruding from his right sleeve where his “Devil’s Fist” used to be. Much wackiness ensues. The manga is fun, but not particularly spectacular – a typical shounen comedy with a solid theme and story. The anime is better. It hits all points of the source material on every level, and builds a solid aesthetic on top of that. It’s the classic example of an adaptation exceeding its source. I’ll definitely be hanging around for as long as they want to play this one out.

Hanaukyo Maids La Verite is the opposing example of a poor adaptation. There is a prior TV series in this franchise called Hanaukyo Maids Tai, which was a harmless, sweet, sexist puddle of a sex comedy. It’s your typical wish-fulfillment fantasy gone terribly wrong – the protagonist is a teenaged boy given command of wealth and a mansion staffed by an entire regiment of overly-enthusiastic maids by his absentee, fetish-crazed grandfather. The catch is, of course, that our hero had a strong girl-fear neurosis, and became physically ill in contact with women. The maids spent the entire show taking comedic advantage of his good nature, with the head maid continually guilting him by threatening to throw the whole useless lot onto unemployment whenever he objected to whatever new insanity they had come up with. The whole show was done in a sort of half-super-deformed character-animation style, so that the comedic aspect was heavily played up, and it was impossible to take the whole thing seriously. La Verite, instead of being some sort of direct sequel to that previous show, is instead a remake of a show that didn’t really need to be remaid –er, remade. They cut the girl-poisoning gag, and the character designs were done on a more realistic, adult-looking line. Otherwise, it’s the same thing in different clothing. And god knows, the thing we were really missing from the current anime scene was yet another bland maid show with its few distinctive characteristics sanded down flat. Bleh.

Kono Minikuku mo Utsukushii Sekai, or This Ugly and Beautiful World, for those of you who can’t pronounce Japanese worth a damn, is one of two new Gainax series for this season. There was a lot of buzz about it, almost all of which, I have concluded, was thoroughly unjustified. This is the type of show that reinforces my impression that Gainax is a slowly deflating bladder of hot air. It’s sprinkled with pointless, stupid anime-otaku references which play exactly like the weak injoky product of a half-witted fanzine. I suppose they’re supposed to be fanboy shoutouts, but it’s just a lot of irrelevant bullshit. The plot seems to be “alien light comes down from the heavens, and transforms into series of cute girls who use our protagonist as a rubber-suit knight errant”. The “twist” is that the first cute alien-girl is secretly a cold killer. Or something like that. The little bits that they might have built on from the first episode were totally undermined by a confused, self-indulgent, incompetently incoherent second episode. It’s the sort of show where the obligatory Misato-gaijin-loudgirl introduces herself to the cast by showing up drunk, naked and uninvited in somebody else’s living room. So much hate…

The other Gainax anime is called Memory of Oblivion, and lord knows, nothing shouts “qwality” like a showname which acronymizes to “Moo”. It’s another skiffy highschool-hero-fighting-monsters story, with fairly low-end animation, a blurry, reddish aesthetic, and some welcome surprises. The monsters have secretly defeated humanity, and they walk among mankind, demanding and receiving human sacrifices from the people in charge. The monsters are honestly, actually strange, in a fashion that is more reminiscent of Utena than any Gainax show I can think of. There are strong Greek-classical allusions throughout the first episode, but they don’t put up big “cultural material” signposts around those allusions. Memory of Oblivion looks like phoned-in hackwork on first glance, but there seems to be something actually worthwhile hidden under the rough exterior. I’ll definitely give them a chance to screw it all up, that’s for sure.

The Mars Daybreak is a disappointment. It’s a Bones production, and I had very high hopes after RahXephon and Scrapped Princess. Admittedly, they’re also capable of miserable crap like Wolf’s Rain, so I should know better than to get worked up like this. The Mars Daybreak (also known as Kenran Butoh Sai The Mars Daybreak, but that’s too much of a mouthful to bother using) is a mecha SF story set on an over-terraformed Mars. They seem to have gone a little over the top with the ice-comet impacts, because the whole planet seems to be waterlogged, enough so that desiccants are a major import item from Earth. There’s some lame politics, and some pirates in a super-sub with mecha, and government troops with their own lame mecha leashed to command vehicles like a bunch of metallic cocker-spaniels out for walksies. The show has some chrome to it, but no-one and nothing in the first episode really inspired me to go watch a second episode. I’ve found more character and verve in seed catalogs, to be honest.

Hi no Tori or “Phoenix” is based on Osamu Tezuka’s masterwork. I’ve never been a big Tezuka fan, and Hi no Tori has a reputation for being sort of grim and unrelenting, but the first episode was pretty good. A doctor from ancient Yamato washes up on the island of the Ainu-esque Fire Island tribe, saves a girl, gets married to her, and betrays the whole tribe to destruction. Grim story, well-told. As I understand the series concept, it’s going to be a series of semi-independent shorts revolving around the figure of the mystic Firebird, or Phoenix. Kind of a literary, downbeat sort of show, but it won’t suck. I don’t think.

Speaking of literary and downbeat, Monster is a stylish, gloomy anime based on a highly-regarded manga from the same guy who did Yawara and Mr. Keaton. The character designs are homely in the same style as Mr. Keaton, but the show aesthetic is attractive despite the character designs. The protagonist is a Japanese doctor in late-Eighties West Germany, a brilliant surgeon who is slowly sinking into a sort of corrupt success story. He’s engaged to his hospital’s director’s horrible daughter, a scaldingly cynical fashion-plate with no apparent regard for moral values. His father-in-law-to-be uses him like a dog, and manages to possess fewer scruples than his repulsive spawn. The doctor is guilty about having let a Turkish immigrant die under the knife of an incompetent co-worker while he operated on a famous artist instead. So when a boy with a serious head wound comes in just as he’s ordered to go work on the mayor of Dusseldorf, he has a crisis of conscience. The really excellent thing about this all? Not played in that broad, exaggerated style that so many “mature”, serious Japanese animated series affect when they want to play with the big boys. It’s restrained, and solid, and excellent. I look forward to the next episode.

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